Student interview with FSC and her mother, Edith Westerfeld:
Interview with Fern Schumer Chapman
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I had a difficult childhood, but writing saved me. I discovered that capturing my emotional life on the page could be therapeutic. As Anne Frank wrote in her diary in April 1944, “I can shake off everything if I write. My sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
What were your hobbies as a kid? What are your hobbies now?
Reading, biking, art projects. Reading, biking, art projects.
What book is on your nightstand now?
I read on my iPad now, so my nightstand is clean. But my iPad bookshelf includes Jeanette Walls, The Silver Star, Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life, and Michael Hainey’s, After Visiting Friends.
I’m also researching adoption issues for my new book, so I’m reading Betty Jean Lifton’s Journey of the Adopted Self and Nancy Newton Verrier’s Coming Home to Self.
Where do you write your books?
I have a home office and I usually write there. But, on cold winter days, I take my laptop and sit in front of the fire.
What sparked your imagination for Is it Night or Day?
After reading my memoir, Motherland, a woman called and told me that she didn’t think I knew about the program that brought my mother to this country. She was right. I didn’t know because my mother didn’t know. My mother was too young to understand what was happening to her. All she knew was that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) had a role in bringing her to this country.
The reader said she thought she could help. She directed me to the “One Thousand Children” website where I first learned about the program that brought my mother to America. As soon as I made this discovery, I realized I could write about my mother’s childhood immigration experience. I wanted to raise awareness of this small American program that wasn’t mentioned in history books, or even documented in museums. In addition, I wanted to make readers aware of the many children who come to America all alone.
I don’t remember the reader’s name, but I’d like to thank her for directing me to this path.
How much involvement did your mother have in writing Is It Night or Day?
She answered all of my questions as best she could. But she knew little about the program, and she had shut down her memories in order to cope with her losses. Still, she wanted me to write the book to fulfill a lifelong wish: “I hope this book is like an open letter to my old ship friend, Gerda Katz,” my mother said. “I hope Gerda reads this book and finds me. I’ve thought of her often, and I always wanted to see her again.”
How did she feel about your work researching the “One Thousand Children Project?”
She was eager to know what I learned. It helped her understand the mosaic of her life. Since this American program was so small and it received little publicity, there wasn’t much information about it. In fact, only one book provided original source material — letters, diary entries, and pictures of the One Thousand Children. I relied heavily on that book for details about the childrens’ immigrant experiences. In fact, though the book is a work of historical fiction, every story and anecdote in the book came from the experiences of the One Thousand Children.
How do you think you would have acted in your mother’s place?
I like to think that I would be as willing, open, and supportive as she has been of me. I admire her for that, and for her ability to grow and change.
Here’s a great example of how this wonderful characteristic presented itself in her ninth decade. Even though she types with two fingers and thinks that only birds “tweet,” she recently figured out how to post her first Facebook message on my wall:
“Dear Fern, Congratulations–Thank You for bringing my story to the world.
Note: She still capitalizes the pronoun “you,” which is correct German grammar.
How did knowing what she went through change the way you viewed her?
I felt more empathy for her once I understood her childhood immigration experiences and her profound losses. Now, I appreciate her and love her more deeply. I have a much better understanding of why she struggled with the role of mother.
Did you have any experiences with immigrants growing up?
Yes, I went to a school that had many immigrant students. Now, I speak at many schools with immigrant populations. My mother’s experiences gave me great compassion for these students.
Even though I have written about the challenges, immigration also can be a positive metaphor. In fact, all of us can enlarge our world as “immigrants.” I love what Writer Jean Rhys said about reading and the immigrant experience. “Reading makes immigrants of us all,” she wrote in Wide Sarasso Sea. “It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.”
Are you a baseball fan like your mother?
Yes, I like the White Sox but, deep in my heart, I am a long-suffering Cubs fan.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid?
Follow My Leader by James B. Garfield and illustrated by Robert Greiner. In fact, I just ordered another copy of the book. Originally published in 1957, my copy is from the second printing in 1958.
What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing?
Writing should really be called “rewriting.”
I love what E. L. Doctorow said about writing a novel: “It is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
That’s how I do it.
What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were younger?
I wish someone had explained to me that the darkest days are just one snapshot in the photo album of life. Things change quickly. I also wish someone had explained to me that I control what I think.
Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do to get back on track?
Most writing ideas strike me while I’m riding my bike. That’s not surprising, given the research that exercise enhances creative thought. For me, biking is a way to stoke my brain. I’m often asked, “Why not use a stationary bike?” Not the same. The combination of exercise and nature feeds me.
Ideas also strike me while I’m driving, walking, even showering, but not with the same frequency or intensity. That’s why I am the last biker off the path in December and the first one out in March…maybe even February.
What do you want readers to remember about your books?
My books are about stories, to be sure, but they are much more than that. I would hope my readers understand how deeply I feel about family and history. I want them to know how my mother’s experiences defined her, influenced the way she mothered, and, ultimately, shaped the way I see the world. I hope my books inspire readers to learn about their parents and themselves through family history.
As a Jew, I have an obligation to remember and recount. In retelling, even those parts of the past that are painful to relive, I hope to consecrate the memory of those who came before me. In addition, I often recall what Iris Chang, author of the Rape of Nanking, said about genocide: “First they kill, and then they kill the memory of killing.” I write, in part, so the memory of those who perished and of those who survived the Holocaust endures. I hope to give voice to survivors and refugees who are not capable of telling their own stories.
What would you do if you ever stopped writing?
I’m fascinated with how trauma is transmitted in families. If I stopped writing, I’d love to better understand trauma and study neuroscience.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
Being a loving, steady, present mother.
I’m so pleased that Fern was able to talk with me about her work and the fascinating story about her own family.
Your new book, Is it Day or Night? is a prequel to Motherland. Can you share a bit about your creative process and how that affected the writing – and sequencing – of your books?
My mother came from a small German town of 2,000 people and only two Jewish families. Her family had lived in that town since 1721. When she was only 12 years old, my grandparents sensed the growing anti-Semitism in Germany and sent my mother to this country all by herself. Eventually, her parents were killed in concentration camps. My mother coped with her losses by never talking about her past.
Finally, for a variety of reasons, my mother decided she wanted to return to her town in 1991, and I went with her on the trip. Everyone in the town remembered her and, when we returned, each resident was confronted with his or her sense of responsibility for the past. In addition, my mother began to open up about her childhood and I began to understand her. Motherland captures these experiences.
When I wrote the book, I didn’t know anything about the program that brought my mother to America. Neither did she. But after the publication of the book, I learned about a small American rescue operation organized by Lutherans, Quakers and Jewish organizations that brought ten children at a time from Europe to America on cruise ships. Between 1934 and 1944, this organization brought over about 100 children a year, saving about a thousand children. My mother was one of what is now known as the “One Thousand Children.”
Readers of Motherland had many questions about my mother’s child immigration experience and, as I gained answers, I realized that I could write a prequel and capture this untold chapter of history.
Consequently, I wrote Is It Night or Day? Through the prism of one girl’s story, readers of this book experience my mother’s bewildered efforts to assimilate in America, her struggle against constant feelings of abandonment and isolation, and the daunting work necessary to rebuild a life in the face of unspeakable loss — challenges for every child immigrant.
Now that both are published, which one should be read first?
Both books stand alone so a reader can pick up either one or both. Motherland is a memoir that examines the legacy of the Holocaust, but Is It Night or Day? is a work of historical fiction. I have imagined my mother’s voice and recounted some of her experiences along with some of the other “One Thousand Children.” Since I told the story from my mother’s 12-year-old perspective, it can be read by adults and young adults.
Both books are based on your mother’s experiences. How much did you rely on her accounts and how much research did you do on your own?
Motherland captures the experiences on two trips to Germany and it is based upon my perceptions and my mother’s accounts of her early life. Both books required research to understand the historical and psychological aspects of these experiences. However, there is very little material available about the “One Thousand Children” so that presented its own challenge. A book of diaries and letters by the “One Thousand Children” called Don’t Wave Goodbye was invaluable.
What are some fun facts about you?
Hmmm…I am a research hound. I deeply believe knowledge is power. As a journalist, I taught myself to gather as much information as possible before writing about any subject. And I don’t let any of that research go to waste. I use leftover material in my blog at www.fernschumerchapman.com/blog.
Fern, thank you for sharing your thoughts and your writing process. I wish you continued success with your books!
Interview for All-School Reads Program at Norton Middle School, Norton, MA
What is it like knowing what your mother went through?
My mother suffered terribly as a child. Before they were killed by the Nazis, my grandparents made the most painful choice any parent could face. They decided to send my mother, who was only 12 years old, to live with relatives in America. She came to this country alone. These experiences deeply defined her.
By writing two books about my mother and her experiences, Is It Night or Day? and Motherland, I finally know her family story and I have gained a greater understanding of my mother. I feel deep empathy for her. Now, that her story is told, she seems to feel a sense of relief. She feels her suffering was not in vain.
In the description of Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust, you say that the trip you took was to repair your relationship with your mother. Why was it so fragile, if you don’t mind my asking.
My mother never spoke of her past. It seemed to me she had divorced herself from her own history. As far as I knew, she had no mother, no father, no cousins, no childhood friends. She had no stories and no religious traditions. Consequently, I knew nothing of her history, her family and her childhood. Her past was like a busy intersection that I was to avoid at all costs. This created a wedge in our relationship because I felt she was withholding important personal information from me and she felt she was protecting me from her painful past.
I’m assuming the trip was successful in that it did repair your relationship?
It was successful. During the trips to my mother’s homeland, she began to open up about her history and I began to understand what had shaped her. Motherland captures the transformation in our relationship.
When did you know you wanted to turn her story into books?
I always knew my mother’s stories ought to be told, but I waited until I was ready emotionally, and as a writer. Motherland is based upon two trips to my mother’s small home town in Germany. (Her family was one of only two Jewish families that had lived in the town. My mother’s family had helped settle the town in 1721.) I went on the first trip with the hope of finding whatever was left in Germany of my family. On my second trip, accompanied by my husband and children as well as my mother, I began to realize that I should write a book. With three generations together in my mother’s little town, I saw the larger story.
I learned about the program that brought my mother to America after Motherland was released. Then, I realized I had an opportunity to write another book since no one had written about this American program, organized by Quakers, Lutherans and Jewish groups, that saved 1,200 children. The three groups quietly organized and sent 10 children at a time on cruise ships. The program brought over 100 children a year between 1934 and 1945. Is It Night or Day? tells my mother’s story of childhood immigration on this program.
Why is it important to you that you visit schools to talk about your family’s experiences and your books?
My mother’s story is universal and it raises important issues of identity, prejudice, and assimilation. It sheds light on the story of becoming an American and I believe each of us can benefit from learning about that experience. Second, I wanted to show how a cataclysmic event such as World War II reaches beyond its participants and continues to shape future generations. Readers of Motherland can see how the past defines the present.
What made you choose Norton? Did someone from the school reach out to you?
Principal Michael O’Rourke contacted me after a teacher had read Is It Night or Day? and chased him down on “Back-to-School” night last fall. He told me that, when he saw the teacher running after him, he thought there “was a fire in the bathroom.” Actually, the teacher wanted to ask if the school might consider my book for an all-school reads program and invite me to speak in the spring. I am honored to have this opportunity.
How do you relate this story to children who might not quite understand the magnitude of it?
This is a story of childhood immigration. The backdrop is the Holocaust. Therefore, my presentations shed light on the anti-Semitism which forced my grandparents to make the painful choice to send their 12-year-old daughter to America all by herself. However, since my mother lived in America during World War II, the horrible violence of the Holocaust is not the focus of my presentation.
How do children generally react to your book and school visits?
They are fascinated with my mother’s experience since they are close to her age. They imagine what it would be like to be in my mother’s shoes. They come away with more empathy for some of their classmates who are immigrants or for those who are unlike themselves. In addition, they begin to understand that their parents’ experiences define both their parents and themselves.